Nicotine increases fear responses and brain acetylcholinesterase activity in a context-dependent manner in zebrafish

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Abstract

Nicotine is an alkaloid with positive effects on learning and memory processes. Exposure to conspecific alarm substance (CAS) elicits fear responses in zebrafish, but the effects of nicotine on aversive behaviors and associative learning in this species remain unclear. Here, we evaluated whether nicotine enhances contextual fear responses in zebrafish and investigated a putative involvement of brain acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in associative learning. Fish were exposed to 1 mg/L nicotine for 3 min and then kept in non-chlorinated water for 20 min. Later, animals were transferred to experimental tanks in the absence or presence of 3.5 mL/L CAS for 5 min (training session). After 24 h, fish were tested in tanks with similar or altered context in the absence of CAS (post-training session) and brain AChE activity was further assessed. At training, CAS increased freezing, erratic movements, and decreased the time spent in top area, while nicotine abolished the effects of CAS on erratic movements. Nicotine/CAS group tested in a similar context showed exacerbated freezing and reduced transitions to top area. Moreover, a decrease in distance traveled was observed in control, nicotine, and nicotine/CAS groups at post-training. Nicotine also stimulated brain AChE activity in CAS-exposed animals reintroduced in tanks with similar context. Although freezing bouts and time spent in top could serve as behavioral endpoints that reflect CAS-induced sensitization, the effects of nicotine occurred in a context-dependent manner. Collectively, our data suggest an involvement of cholinergic signaling in aversive learning, reinforcing the growing utility of zebrafish models to explore the neurobehavioral effects of nicotine in vertebrates.

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